On Trying Too Hard With Depression


There’s such a thing as trying too hard.

Anyone who has ever suffered through a case of insomnia knows this well. The harder you try to sleep, the less rest you get. Sleep only comes if you can relax and let go.

It’s true for many other things, too.

Like garage-door controls.

The other day, I was trying to get into my neighbor’s house to walk his dog and pressed the code into the box outside the garage more than 20 times, but the garage wouldn’t lift.

“You’re pressing the buttons too hard,” my daughter told me.

She did the sequence one time, pressing the buttons effortlessly, and up the garage went.

And it definitely applies to managing your thoughts.

The Harder You Try, the More Negative Things Can Get

A study published in August 2007 in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that there was a breakdown in normal patterns of emotional processing that prevented depressed and anxious people from suppressing negative emotions. In fact, the more they tried, the more they activated the fear center of their brain — the amygdala — which fed them more negative messages.

In the study, Tom Johnstone, PhD, then of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, along with colleagues there and at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, examined 21 adults diagnosed with major depressive disorder and 18 non-depressed people of comparable ages. Participants were asked to view a series of emotionally positive and negative images and then specify their reaction to each one. A few seconds after the presentation of each picture, participants were asked to either increase their emotional response, to decrease it, or simply to continue watching the image.

The results showed distinctive patterns of activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the right prefrontal cortex (PFC), areas that regulate the emotional output generated from the amygdala: the almond-shaped group of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain that play a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. The vmPFC is compromised in depression, possibly because of the inappropriate engagement of right PFC circuitry in depressed individuals.

It even applies to exercise.

Why Too Much Exercise Can Be Too Much

While regular and moderate exercise can boost longevity, cardiovascular health, and mood — and improve symptoms of all kinds of chronic conditions — long-term endurance exercise and working out too hard can actually harm our health, according to recent research, such as a study published in 2015 in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology that linked excessive exercise to heart rhythm issues.  Such exercise has been linked to pathological structural remodeling of the heart, enlargement of arteries, and increases in anxiety and depression.

Too much exercise can also exacerbate autoimmune disease, gut dysbiosis, and adrenal fatigue. According to Chris Kresser, an acupuncturist and leader in functional and integrative medicine, overtraining affects blood levels of important neurotransmitters like glutamine, dopamine, and 5-HTP, and can negatively impact the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, possibly causing conditions like hypothyroidism. Extreme exercise also increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, weight gain, and memory impairment.

I know consciously that trying too hard doesn’t always render the best results, but when I experience a depressive episode, I automatically start pedaling faster, thinking that I will escape the biochemical storm sooner if I just try harder.

When Self-Help Is No Help

I showed up recently to my psychiatrist appointment with another self-help book in my hands: Mental Health Through Will Training, by Abraham Low, MD, the late professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago who founded Recovery International, a self-help group for people with nervous, mental, and emotional problems. The book is an invaluable resource that has plenty of wisdom and insights for managing chronic depression, and I was using it as an adjunct to psychiatric care. But its provocative “push yourself as much as you can” philosophy was exactly what I shouldn’t be reading in a dangerous, mixed state of bipolar disorder.

“I think you should stay away from all self-help books right now,” my doctor told me, reminding me of all the times before when I’d been in this state of mind and looked for the answer in mental health literature or self-help groups or mindfulness techniques — as if I were missing some key cognitive behavioral strategy that would instantly deliver me to the land of sanity. Moreover, pushing too hard, she said, has typically led to setbacks in my recovery rather than helped me heal.

People often ask me how much they should push themselves when it comes to managing their depression: Should they go into work, or call in sick? Should they force themselves to socialize, or stay home and recover? Having read way too many self-help books, I can say there is research to support both perspectives. The right answer is going to be different for everyone, and will vary for the same person at different times.

For me, though, right now I’m learning the hard lesson of patience and trust and moderation.

I’m learning, once again, that more isn’t always better.

In fact, sometimes less is more.

Join Project Hope & Beyond, the new depression community.

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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6 Responses
  1. Lizzie

    I have read so many self help books . Some of them have driven me mad. I have given 200 % to finding a cure which leaves me exhausted. We have moved house quite a few times- if only we lived??? I would find it easier to go to the cinema get the groceries ect ect. July to find that my depression is always waiting and I am more isolated and lonely. And now I wished we had stayed somewhere and had some peace.
    i agree trying to hard is counterproductive. And also it makes you tired and overwhelmed. Some self help books are quite critical re depression and the last thing you need is to be beating yourself up because your brain isn’t firing properly. A damaged electric circuit.
    One book I did find helpful is “Reasons to stay alive ” by Matt Haig but it is about his journey with depression and it is helpful for people who don’t understand depression to read.
    I think saving the money you would spend on self help books to put towards a treat like a nice massage or afternoon tea or whatever takes your fancy.
    When feeling overwhelmed the brain needs a rest. Tender loving care. Nuturing . At other times when feeling agitated and restless going for a walk . When the pain is so hard to bear and nothing soothes I find a warm bath helps to keep me safe or a drive into the countryside and sit by a river. So simple isn’t it? I don’t think so.
    But the reality is I want a Tardis to g back in time and make different decisions , to have been more assertive. Not to have moved. To have understood that running away and all the self help books will not cure me. And sometimes reading about others success makes me feel like a failure.
    Choose carefully what you read. Who you talk to. make some effort but done climb a mountain everyday. The view from halfway up can be just as rewarding and leaves some reserves.

  2. nessa3

    I have that issue…read every self help book…push to get over it quick…and end up frustrated and depressed because Im not over it in a few months

  3. Memo

    ANALYSIS PARALYSIS!!! Oh yes that is me ! I’m a lifer when it comes to depression/anxiety. First depressive episode at age 18. I’m now 47 and recently qualified for disability. Been on every med there is over the years with a course of ECT at age 22 that left me with more memory loss than was anticipated. The combo of medications that I currently take have been successful in keeping me from descending into the “worse than hell” level of depression I have experienced too many times. Doctors and counselors laugh when they give suggestions or “new” ideas because I always tell them everything I already know about “that one” I know I keep researching because I am desperate to know what a few days as a “normally functioning ” person would feel like.
    I never stop the search but (the rational me) knows that acting on some of the knowledge I have rather than just searching for more would definately be more helpful.

    …….The dangerous thing about learning so much about how to treat / overcome all those unwanted symptoms is : YOU JUST KNOW MORE ABOUT ALL THAT YOU COULD BE TRYING. BUT ARE NOT DOING ‼️
    And boy does that heap on the guilt!!!! I’m always beating myself up for not using all that knowledge about my illness ….. I think ” If I know all this helpful information THEN WHY THE H### DON’T I DO IT‼️ Then it becomes ANOTHER THING I’M NOT DOING TO HELP MYSELF…….. (And the guilt and self-blame are right there full force) Because none of it SHOULD be hard says my brain…………

  4. elizabeth

    unfortunately, I am in the same boat. let me list some personal experiences that have made my depression journey so much worse:

    being in a psych. ward and watching super-depressed patients suddenly come to ‘life’, feeling, in fact, ‘better than well,’ while I struggle on deeply treatment resistant and am ‘released’ feeling much the same if not worse/ finally experiencing that joy of feeling ‘better than well’ or perhaps what most happy folks experience daily only having it turn on you within a matter of weeks./ having all manner of doctors not believe you when you almost shamefully tell them ‘I’m sorry this drug makes me feel totally disorientated, or this drug does nothing for me or turns me into a raging monster, or a panic filled insomniac etc.and seeing the great disbelief and/or disappointment in their eyes like it is somehow your fault because why can’t you just get better like other patients did./being on a med that actually did work but having a doc switch you to a new and improved one that doesn’t work only to retry the original one that did work to find that now it does effing not work. like thanks for that doc!!/getting older (I am about to be 63) and having exhausted all available treatments and then some worry that maybe this is it!/ knowing that family and friends are tired of your lifetime mental illness and why can’t you just get over it?/worrying that 30 years of brain altering drugs may have screwed up your neurons big time!/also fearing that after a lifetime of treatment resistant depression maybe you are actually deficient in dopamine and therefore a candidate for a horrible neurobiological disease like parkinson’s or dementia!/I could go on but will end by saying I too suffered at least a year’s worth of memory loss due to totally ineffective ECT treatments in addition to memory loss caused by my anti-anxiety meds freely prescribed by my GP of 25 years and to which I am now addicted!!!

    Sorry for this negative message but as a treatment resistant gal who has struggled for 30 years to just wake up and feel happy or at least not downright anxious and depressed I thought I would share some of my personal experiences with you because perhaps maybe you can relate in some way and in doing so know you are not alone!!